George Lucas Educational Foundation

Life on the Screen: Visual Literacy in Education

The visionary filmmaker argues that students must learn a new language of image and sound in order to succeed.
By James Daly
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Credit: © 2002 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.

In the rolling hills of California's Marin County grows a brittle amber grass known for one thing: its combustibility. If ignited, this thigh-high tinder burns furiously, rapidly consuming everything in its path.

The same can be said of the filmmaker who calls these hills just north of San Francisco his home. George Lucas is regarded as one of the legends of American cinema. By the mid-1980s, he had made a number of blockbusters, including Star Wars, American Graffiti, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Released in 1977, Star Wars is still one of the top-grossing films of all time.

Just as Lucas once envisioned new intergalactic worlds, today he envisions a new world of learning. He grew up one-hundred miles inland from these coastal hills in the searing heat of Modesto, California, tinkering with cars and helping out at his dad's stationery store. He was, he recalls, "an average student who daydreamed a lot." It is perhaps those early memories of unfocused ambition that have infused him with a desire to promote a new way of learning that prepares students to succeed in a highly wired and visual world.

Lucas habitually dresses in jeans, sneakers, and work shirts -- a man looking like there is much work to be done. For the American educational system, he says, that work must begin now.

What do students need to be learning that they're not?

They need to understand a new language of expression. The way we are educating is based on nineteenth-century ideas and methods. Here we are, entering the twenty-first century, and you look at our schools and ask, 'Why are we doing things in this ancient way?' Our system of education is locked in a time capsule. You want to say to the people in charge, 'You're not using today's tools! Wake up!'

Credit: George Lucas

What would you change?

We must teach communication comprehensively, in all its forms. Today we work with the written or spoken word as the primary form of communication. But we also need to understand the importance of graphics, music, and cinema, which are just as powerful and in some ways more deeply intertwined with young people's culture. We live and work in a visually sophisticated world, so we must be sophisticated in using all the forms of communication, not just the written word.

When people talk to me about the digital divide, I think of it not being so much about who has access to what technology as who knows how to create and express themselves in this new language of the screen. If students aren't taught the language of sound and images, shouldn't they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write?

Unfortunately, most learning institutions find that idea very difficult to swallow. They consider the various forms of nonwritten communication as some type of therapy or art, something that is not relevant to the everyday life of a student. This is wrong.

You can measure verbal or math skills by determining whether a student is right or wrong on a test -- in other words, whether they're learning or not. With visual communication, some might argue it's trickier to measure progress and competency.

But there are rules for telling a story visually that are just as important as grammatical rules or math terms, and you can test people on them as well. There is grammar in film, there is grammar in graphics, there is grammar in music, just like there are rules in math that can be taught. For instance, what emotion does the color red convey? What about blue? What does a straight line mean? How about a diagonal line?

In music, if you want somebody to feel sad, what kind of a chord do you use? A minor chord? A major chord? We know that a fast rhythm makes you feel one way and a slow rhythm makes you feel another. If you want to get somebody excited, you use one kind of rhythm; if you want people to feel important, you use another. If you're going to put together a multimedia project, you need to know that you can't have a fast rhythm track if you're talking about death. It just doesn't work. You're not communicating well.

We also know that if you're trying to calm people down, you don't use the color red. Or, if you're trying to get people excited, you do use the color red. If you want people to be calm, you use a flat line; if you want them to be excited, you use a jagged or a diagonal line.

Knowing these things is as important as knowing what a verb and a subject are, what a period and an exclamation point mean.

How do we bring these lessons into the classroom?

We need to look at the whole world of communication in a more complete way. We need to take art and music out of "the arts class" and put it into the English class. For instance, the various forms of communication form a circle. On one end of this circle is math, the least emotional of all forms of communication. It's very strict and very concise, and has a very precise way of explaining something. Then you start moving around the circle, and you get to the other end, where we have music, which primarily appeals to your emotions, not to your intellect.

So, in this great circle of communication, you go from the emotional end of music and painting and art -- the visual forms of communication -- to the written communication and spoken communication. Finally, you end up at math, which is the most precise. It forms a beautiful circle of communication. But it's all part of the same circle.

All these forms of communication are extremely important, and they should be treated that way. Unfortunately, we've moved away from teaching the emotional forms of communication. But if you want to get along in this world, you need to have a heightened sense of emotional intelligence, which is the equal of your intellectual intelligence.

One of my concerns is that we're advancing intellectually very fast, but we're not advancing emotionally as quickly.

What's at stake if this understanding doesn't make its way into the classroom?

You're already seeing it. You often see very educated people -- doctors and lawyers and engineers -- trying to make presentations, and they have no clue about how to communicate visually and what happens when you put one image after another. So their lectures become very confused because, from a visual perspective, they're putting their periods at the front of their sentences, and nobody understands them.

We must accept the fact that learning how to communicate with graphics, with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words. Understanding these rules is as important as learning how to make a sentence work.

Credit: George Lucas

It seems that there have always been two parallel paths in education. The first is the formalized path of the schools. The other is the knowledge of the street, the information gained outside of school. Is the information students now gain outside the classroom more in touch with learning the language of motion and sound and graphics?

Students understand that they need to have these skills in order to exist in this world, so they're way ahead of us. Most kids relate to each other through music or graphics. They are regularly bombarded with images and sound. Most of their awareness comes through the language of moving images and cinema. That's why it's so important that they learn the language of it.

In most formalized education, graphics in cinema or music training is taught as a craft or discipline. That is, you learn the notes so you can read music and play a song. But that doesn't teach you how to express yourself. What I'm talking about is learning the grammar, but also learning how to express yourself. When you are trying to write a paragraph and you want to get a point across, how do you clearly make your point? What does your first sentence say? What does your last say? Take that and apply it to graphics.

Some might say you're being too idealistic, that the schools don't have enough money for pencils. Shouldn't we focus on that first?

Education is based on a whole number of issues, and two of the most important are, what are the kids learning, and why are they learning it? The educational foundation, though, tends to be based on what you are going to accomplish, rather than how and why.

We have to ask, What is important for the kids to learn? The old idea of education as a way of storing facts is not that significant because nobody can store the number of facts there are. Every year it seems to double. Instead we need to teach students how to tell a story. It's not enough to learn geometry; you have to learn how to build a house. We need to treat the language and grammar of the screen exactly the way we learn writing or music or painting.

Where did your passion for education come from? What kind of student were you growing up?

I was an average student who daydreamed a lot. I had a very hard time with education, and I was never described as a bright student. I was considered somebody who could be doing a lot better than I was doing, not working up to my potential. I wish I had known some of these rules back then.

Do you think the education field will get your message?

I hope so. Right now we are having a huge paradigm shift, on all fronts, from analog to digital. The business world has pretty much accomplished this already, and education is still taking its first baby steps in this direction. This is more than just teaching kids how to use computers. Kids already know this. They know how to use computers before they get to school.

There is one major hurdle, though. The business world thrives on change. If you don't change, you don't improve, and you go out of business. The education world, it seems, thrives on stability and limiting change. There seem to be an awful lot of people protecting the status quo.

The problem is that people don't get the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that a country survives on its educational system. Go beyond that: The human race survives on its educational system. That means that a country with the best educational system becomes the prominent country or society. The society that has a great educational system becomes the prominent society because that's the way the human race survives.

People seem to forget this fact, and often these are the same people who are running the society. They would rather spend money on the military than on the educational system, unaware that the military will bring them zippo. It's not a great idea to want to take over the world if you don't know what to do with it and how to run it. Nothing is accomplished through conquest. Everything is accomplished through education.

James Daly is the former editorial director of Edutopia.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dave Chladek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Programers have known for a couple decades how to write engaging Video Games that appeal to young people. So much so that kids become addicted to the games. This type of media should be in use in the classroom teaching our students mathematics, language arts and especialy social studies. Let's get up to speed with the "digital natives".
I teach mathematic to at-risk-kids at the Douglas County Student Support Center. We work with students who have been expelled from the nine Douplas County high schools. From time to time we also have middle school students. My wife and I live in Castle Rock, Colorado and I teach in Parker, Colorado.

Susan Holler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that Dave Chladek has it correct... so many of our students are so strong on video games that the books of education (science, stocial studies) are sitting in the dust.... I can ask students how to play this game or how to program the cell phone and they are on top of all the latest data... but ask them what 5x4 is or what are the 3 branches of goverment... their minds go blank... we need to develop more technology that involves video type games that can be educational and useful in the classroom. I teach in Cy-Fair ISD.

Laura Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. Change is hard and especially as you get older. Times are changing and what worked several years ago will not be relevant today. I teach 2nd Grade at Lieder Elementary and I feel that I do not have the skills or knowledge to teach my students for jobs that have not been created yet. I know that I need to teach them how to problem solve for problems that have not even happened yet. I do feel a heavy weight on my shoulders to prepare my students to be successful in their future jobs. I am also excited to be a part of a new generation that can teach me new ways. :-)

Mary Abbott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was doing some research on this website and just came across this article. I must say I agree with Susan and Dave. Susan wrote: "..we need to develop more technology that involves video type games that can be educational and useful in the classroom." In 1998 I was teaching English to "at-risk" 9th and 10th graders. I bought a bunch of grammar and punctuation CD's at Egghead Software that were really FUN for the students to use! I didn't have to teach the basics of grammar to kids with a wide-range of previous knowledge, boring those who were ahead and losing those who were behind. Instead, they worked at computers at their own pace. When they got an answer wrong, you'd hear an "Uh-oh" sound coming from their Macs, and the students would typically groan. When they got an answer right, you'd hear the jumping jelly beans cheering, and you'd often hear a student shout "Yes!" and laugh. I asked them to repeat and show me what they learned--and they were definitely learning! I took a break of several years from teaching to work on a grant. Since returning, I have never found such fun and entertaining CD's or even websites for teaching English. (Egghead closed a long time ago...) If anyone else has, I'd sure like to know where to find them! I teach at Victory (Continuation) High School in Rocklin, CA.

Diane Rener's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that it is difficult to stay ahead of the curve with the background we have right now. Unfortunately, education has been that of a "factory" model, focusing on making good workers and citizens for the country. What is missing from this generation is the ability to think creatively and problem solve. Costa has defined 16 habits of mind. I have started taking time from my music class to teach on these habits. The result is fantastic and it has made my teaching so much easier! Part of those habits is problem solving as we as persistence. The idea of sustainable teaching is giving students tools to change with the times and evolve with changes in the future. Simply teaching the capitols of each state will not help them succeed as teaching how to work in a group, create a new idea or solve problems we have not even identified yet!

Kathie Rigby's picture

I'm doing a presentation on information literacy, with visual literacy and media literacy being a big component. I would like to share this article with the principals from my district and especially the quotes from George Lucas on how visual literacy has a grammar to it that we need to have students understand and use.

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

A new film, soon-to-be-released, "Limitless", has inspired Professor Martin Rayala at his "andDESIGN" blog (K - 12 Design Education) to
think very creatively about Films and The Classroom, or Films as a Metaphor for Designing our Future Society...

He eloquently states that, "Films are like our Dreams, where we process imaginations and ideas, and come to crystalize what is possible to create for our Future, as a Society..."

This is a fascinating perspective to consider for Classroom Discussion...

Allen Berg

Lauren Jackson's picture
Lauren Jackson
High School English teacher at Seoul Foreign School, Korea

I've been starting to teach this kind of visual literacy in my English classes at Seoul Foreign School, and it's built into the new curricula for IB Literature and IB Language and Literature, which is an exciting development from IBO. As a teacher, though, even as I agree with the necessity for teaching "the language of sound and images," I'm working to learn it myself. In high school, I didn't have time in my schedule to take even one art class. I hope that more continuing education for teachers is developed in this area. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by teachers who agree with the benefits of teaching visual literacy and who are working at this and supporting me.

Ron Starker's picture
Ron Starker
Librarian at Singapore American School

George Lucas has made a remarkable contribution to film, how sad that our education system judged him to be just average. I agree with all of his comments. At my school library we are creating learning design studios to engage students in visual and auditory literacy. Basically we are offering a hands on studio with adult and peer to peer coaching.

Claudelle Lewis's picture
Claudelle Lewis
Year 6/Grade 5 Homeroom Teacher

I understand the underlining frustration in the tone of the George Lucas' comments. As an educator we are constantly trying to deliver relevant a curriculum to our students. The shift in teaching and learning has been seismic for some and I know a few educators who feel that the demand of including technology in their classrooms are too much. Teachers attempt to analyze and access how best to teach, the problem is that takes time and unfortunately technology is not waiting patiently for us to catch up.

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